vulture precaps

Boardwalk Empire Primer: Where Things Stand Entering Season Four

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Boardwalk Empire’s time jumps — the fourteen months between seasons two and three, and the eight between seasons three and four — can make for a jarring reentry into the HBO series’ many story lines. You likely remember that the season three finale involved a shootout at the Artemis Club brothel, but who survived? And much of last season revolved around a gangster war, but which alliances were struck up and which were broken? With the show’s return set for Sunday night, here’s a quick guide to where the primary Boardwalk Empire characters left off.

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)
During season three, Nucky Thompson tried to keep a lower profile at the behest of Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who was on the take for $40,000 a month to block investigation of his bootlegging. Nucky’s solution? To strike an exclusive distribution deal with Arnold Rothstein in New York. And though they were cut out of that deal, most of the other gangsters accepted it with grace — save for Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), who took it as a personal insult. (Gyp pretty much took everything as an insult.) Gyp’s response was to block the transport of alcohol from Atlantic City to New York, and after a couple of scuffles with Nucky’s men, he tried, and failed, to kill Nucky, instead killing Nucky’s mistress Billie Kent. Nucky then declared war on Gyp and his boss Masseria, while also busying himself orchestrating the downfall of Daugherty and bootlegger George Remus. Initially thinking he’d started a battle he couldn’t win alone, Nucky ultimately received help from Al Capone and Chalky White, and settled the score against his enemies. Gyp and many of Masseria’s men were slain, and Rothstein was set up to be arrested. By the end of season three, Nucky has revised his empire-building strategy, telling his brother Eli that they should only be in business with people they can trust. He also dropped public glad-handing persona along with the red carnation in his lapel.

Margaret Schroeder
At the start of season three, Nucky and his wife Margaret were already estranged — thanks to her signing over some land to the church against his wishes back in season two. They kept up a public profile, but behind closed doors, they grew further apart, as Nucky took up with actress Billie Kent and Margaret renewed her affair with Nucky’s right-hand man, Owen. Despite her big story line of trying to get a women’s health clinic to provide sex education and birth control, Margaret didn’t take her own instruction; she ended up knocked up by Owen. Bad timing, because soon after the lovers discussed the notion of running away together, Owen was sent on a fatal errand to kill Masseria. Margaret’s reaction to seeing his dead body, which had been delivered back to Nucky’s headquarters in a crate, revealed the affair to Nucky. Margaret then moved to Brooklyn with her two kids and got an abortion. Still, Nucky tried to get her back, but she refused his money, and ultimately, him.

Richard Harrow
Still reeling from the deaths of Jimmy and Angela Darmody, Richard took it upon himself to look after their son, Tommy, thwarting grandmother Gillian’s best efforts to erase Angela’s existence. Richard met his girlfriend Julia by hanging out at the American Legion Hall and got to have a little romance on the side. But after realizing that Tommy’s home — a whorehouse taken over by gangsters — was no place for the kid to grow up, Richard went on a rampage and killed them all (or most of them, anyway), scooped up the boy, and deposited him at Julia’s doorstep. He walked away, all bloody, into the night.

Gillian Darmody
Although Gillian, too, was still affected by the death of her son Jimmy, she concentrated on running her brothel at the Artemis Club. Problem was, the place didn’t belong to her and she couldn’t get a loan, at least not with Jimmy’s body missing and no way to get him declared dead. Her big idea? Picking up a guy on the boardwalk who looked like Jimmy, having sex with him, and then killing him in order to provide a look-alike body. When Nucky saw the death notice, he came to pay his “condolences,” knowing full well that the dead man wasn’t Jimmy. His unexpected appearance inspired Gillian to convince Gyp Rosetti to kill Nucky (only to end up with Billie Kent dying in his place). Her alliance with Gyp backfired, though, when he and his men took over the whorehouse, so she tried to kill him, too; this resulted in her getting injected with heroin instead. In the finale,  she wound up strung out and babbling in a building full of bullet holes and dead bodies, thanks to Richard’s bold rescue of Tommy.

Arnold Rothstein
Rothstein’s exclusive distribution deal with Nucky was thwarted by Gyp Rosetti, leading to tensions all around. Rothstein had a “very delicate truce” with Masseria, and Rosetti was one of his minor lieutenants, so he preferred that Nucky take care of Rosetti without his direct involvement. Luciano and Lanksy betrayed Rothstein by going into the heroin trade with Masseria against Rothstein’s orders, and they tipped Masseria off that Nucky was sending Owen to kill him. Toward the end of the season, Rothstein thought he was getting the better end of the bargain when he took a 99 percent interest in a distillery in exchange for asking Masseria to abandon Gyp Rosetti in Atlantic City on Nucky’s behalf, but little did he know that it was a setup. Then again, Rothstein’s enlistment of Masseria was a setup of his own, when he arranged for Lucky Luciano to be arrested by some dirty cops so he could get Luciano’s heroin stash, which he offered to Masseria. This marked the end of Rothstein’s association with Luciano, but not Lansky.

Al Capone
With his boss, Johnny Torrio, off on vacation, Capone couldn’t resist getting into scuffles with Dean O’Banion and his men, killing one because he was a bully (Capone’s deaf son was being bullied by another kid at school, so he wanted to take it out on someone). Then Eli Thompson showed up in Chicago to solicit Capone’s help with Nucky’s war with Gyp Rosetti, and they drove for eighteen hours back to Atlantic City. Capone gladly took on Masseria’s men, helping to kill them all just as they were leaving Atlantic City, before heading back to Chicago.

Nelson Van Alden
On the lam for the murder of a fellow federal agent (remember the “baptism” of his partner Eric Sebso?), Van Alden moved to Illinois with Lucy’s baby and their nanny, Sigrid, and took on the assumed name of George Mueller. He tried to support this family by selling irons door to door, but was terrible at it and suffered many indignities at work as a result. But when he walked into Dean O’Banion’s flower shop, he inadvertently got mixed up in the ongoing gangster war with Al Capone. At first Van Alden found himself on O’Banion’s good side, but then he got into his debt after requesting help disposing of the body of yet another Prohibition agent (killed because of a misunderstanding). Then Capone caught Van Alden trying to sell  aquavit on his turf and made him inform on O’Banion, putting the former federal agent in the crosshairs of their war.

Chalky White
Chalky bugged Nucky to start his own Cotton Club–like nightclub on the boardwalk in the spot where Babette’s used to be, only to be refused. His daughter got a marriage proposal from a medical student, and Chalky saw that as beneficial, and not just socially — he called upon Samuel’s services when Nucky’s butler, Eddie Kessler, was shot at the Ritz. Now, about that club …

Boardwalk Empire Season Four Primer